6th June 2024 – (Hong Kong) Cathay Pacific Airways’ grand ambitions to soar back to pre-pandemic operational levels by early next year could be clipped by a confluence of concerning personnel woes – from a lingering drought of experienced pilots to a recent spate of alarming training blunders jeopardising its pipeline of future aviators.

In April, the Hong Kong flag carrier confidently proclaimed that passenger flight capacity was on course to be restored to around 80% of 2019 levels by the second quarter, setting the stage for a full recovery within the first three months of 2025. This bullish timeline marked a milestone in the airline’s long slog to claw back from the COVID-19 pandemic’s devastation of the global aviation sector.

Yet even as travel demand continues its vigorous rebound, mounting signs indicate Cathay may fall well short of those rosy projections due to crippling labour shortfalls. Most glaringly, the airline has managed to rehire only 60% of the 5,300 pilots it employed prior to the health crisis, leaving a gaping 2,100 cockpit deficit imperilling its ability to ramp up routes and frequencies to meet resurging passenger volumes.

This deficiency hasn’t gone unnoticed by Beijing, which has been intensifying diplomatic pressure on Cathay to expedite service expansions – particularly to Middle Eastern nations and other Asian economies regarded as strategic priorities under China’s Belt and Road trade and infrastructure initiative. Reports have surfaced that Mainland aviation officials have issued terse demands that the airline accelerate restoring axed routes and inaugurating new services to diplomatic partners, from Saudi Arabia to Kazakhstan.

Failure to swiftly remobilise operations, analysts warn, could see rival mainland Chinese carriers like China Southern snatch up more Hong Kong transferring traffic by outpacing Cathay on route resumptions. Already, Shenzhen has leapfrogged the purported Asian aviation hub by securing direct links to Riyadh nearly half a year ahead of the airline’s long-awaited October relaunch.

Cathay’s apparent foot-dragging has sparked rumblings in some quarters that Beijing may ultimately opt to throw its weight behind other up-and-coming mainland air hubs at Hong Kong’s expense should the city’s home carrier prove unable to keep stride in the ever-fiercer aviation sweepstakes currently unfolding across the region’s resurgent travel markets. The high stakes for Hong Kong’s future as a premium aviation hub were underscored by the city having to dispatch its ceremonial delegation led by Chief Executive John Lee on a protracted multi-stop voyage to the Saudi capital last year.

Yet recertifying Cathay’s massive pool of pilots idled during pandemic shutdowns while recruiting and training cadres of new aviators has proven an arduous and costly endeavour plagued by setbacks – raising doubts about the airline’s capacity growth targets. Beyond the yawning experience gap stemming from the involuntary grounding of over 2,000 veteran cockpit crew, Cathay now also confronts a vexing crisis of confidence in its pipeline for cultivating tomorrow’s pilots following a string of basic airmanship lapses and lack of safety discipline among cadets in training.

In a stern communication circulated last month, senior leadership at Cathay’s contracted U.S. training partner AeroGuard Flight Training Centre informed students that solo flights had been suspended pending an investigation. The drastic step followed an “alarming increase” in potentially catastrophic incidents over mere weeks, including a wingtip strike, a hard landing causing propeller damage, and a runway overshoot that could have triggered a deadly overrun mishap.

More alarming still was AeroGuard’s allegation that students routinely failed to disclose the incidents and appeared nonchalant about basic decision-making requirements for engaging instructors when problems arose. These lapses sparked fears among trainers about systemic gaps in the cadets’ safety mindsets and aeronautical decision-making abilities despite their enrolment in a rigid, multi-year curriculum.

While Cathay swiftly affirmed its backing for AeroGuard’s corrective actions, the revelations cast a pall of uncertainty over its ability to steadily rebuild decimated staffing levels lost during the pandemic’s darkest months – let alone ramp up training throughput to support soaring capacity goals. Some industry insiders question whether the very calibre of candidates being filtered into Cathay’s training pipeline may have deteriorated amid Hong Kong’s spiralling manpower crunch afflicting most economic sectors.

With no clear timeline for resolving the pilot bottlenecks, there are also mounting doubts about whether Cathay will truly be in a position to deliver on Beijing’s marching orders to prioritise new routes to regional economies targeted by the Belt and Road Initiative – a geopolitically-charged gambit of chequebook diplomacy and infrastructure building across 70-plus nations stretching from Asia across the Indian Ocean to Europe and Africa.

Zhang Huiguang, former director-general of the Civil Aviation Authority of China, minced no words in suggesting Hong Kong could find itself crowded out as a premier aerial crossroads sooner than later. “The development and growth of Cathay Pacific will be key for Hong Kong to retain its status as an international aviation hub, as demand for air travel is already shifting toward mainland airports and their carriers,” he told a Qatar aviation forum.

Some well-placed industry sources claim Cathay’s private reservations about personnel constraints have already put the carrier at odds with Beijing’s route prioritisation dictates – opening the door to potential punitive measures should the shortfalls persist. “The authorities have pressed Cathay to open more routes with direct flights to the Middle East and Asia or else they may ask other mainland cities to offer the service,” a source was quoted as saying.

While the airline categorically denies facing official pressure over expansion plans, another Hong Kong aviation figurehead raised eyebrows by alleging that Beijing only approved the HK$39 billion bailout of Cathay during the pandemic on the condition of “beefing up” route networks to cement its future relevance.

For the time being, there are scant signs Cathay is ready to mend what Legislative Councillor Jeffrey Lam terms a route map riddled with “blank spaces” to key international markets clamouring for links – whether the oil-rich Gulf city-states or emerging Southeast Asian gateways like Ipoh and Hua Hin in Malaysia and Thailand. Several nations from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations bloc have voiced dismay at the lack of urgency exhibited by Hong Kong’s flag carrier in reconnecting tourism and business flows.

The International Air Transport Association predicts that global airline industry traffic will fully recover to pre-COVID levels by early 2025. Should Cathay miss that window, it risks ceding competitive ground that may be difficult to reclaim in Hong Kong’s notoriously cutthroat aviation landscape.

Yet the carrier’s immediate priority must be addressing the dual crises of experience drain and training pipeline lapses lest it find itself unable to crew the aircraft needed to maintain even existing trunk routes, let alone inaugurate expansions. While Cathay has sought to accelerate cadet recruitment in a hiring blitz, it remains an open question whether adequate oversight and procedures are in place to ensure the cockpit disciplinary standards required of a major commercial airline.

So dire are the staffing shortfalls that some industry experts advocate rehiring scores of experienced former Cathay pilots dismissed or resigned in recent years, touting their ability to rapidly integrate into active flight operations in a matter of weeks – provided the compensation packages prove sufficiently enticing. Others propose stopgap measures like pressing the Hong Kong government to grant expanded air traffic rights to overseas carriers to temporarily fill route blanks.

Still, over the longer-term, more wholesale reforms may be required by Cathay to not only reset its operations and human resources policies, but to groom a cadre of aviators inculcated in the robust safety cultures instilled at elite airlines from the earliest training phases. In the wake of the U.S. revelations, Hong Kong’s aviation regulators would be well-advised to scrutinise the airline’s stateside training processes and contractor screening procedures lest further lapses undermine public confidence.

Beyond the resourcing roadblocks, Cathay would also be prudent to review its pre-pandemic corporate structure and decision-making blind spots that left it so grievously exposed once the COVID crisis erupted. As a government audit highlighted, fundamental deficiencies in data management and workforce projection tools sowed the seeds for the manpower crunch now inhibiting its bounceback by failing to anticipate surges in attrition and illnesses.

In its 76th year of continuous operations, Cathay Pacific now confronts a reckoning on the sustainability of an operating model that prioritised short-term cost discipline over comprehensive risk mitigation and strategic workforce planning. By reacting only when widespread disruptions materialised, the airline sacrificed invaluable months of recovery prep time – leaving both itself and its home base of Hong Kong scrambling to regain lapsed competitive advantages before hungry rivals swooped in.

If Cathay is to fulfil its outsized role as Hong Kong’s aeronautical standard-bearer shepherding the city’s grand re-emergence onto the international stage, it requires a cultural shift as transformative as its much-vaunted “rebirth” rebranding campaign projects. Mere marketing slogans about resilience cannot paper over the deep-rooted shortcomings stalling a full revival of capabilities, particularly in the mission-critical arena of crewing.

Only by fearlessly addressing institutional myopia about workforce management, outsourcing oversight lapses and hierarchical decision-making bottlenecks can Cathay overhaul operating practices to match the professed pursuit of service excellence. Failure to enact sweeping governance and talent development reforms would all but ensure a Sisyphean struggle to realise its lofty capacity recovery targets amid intensifying regional competition.

Hong Kong’s aviation prospects for this decade hinge on Cathay Pacific’s ability to not only restore staffing levels, but imbue upcoming generations with the foresight, experience and safety discipline of their pre-pandemic predecessors. After the dizzying turbulence of the last three years, the airline faces a long final approach fraught with hazards before a full-throttle takeoff can clear the horizon.